Does Rod Rosenstein’s decision to set a mid-March departure date tell us anything about the status of Robert Mueller? Or does it just tell us that William Barr’s confirmation has made the deputy Attorney General a man without a mission? Now that supervision of the special counsel probe has transferred back to the new Attorney General, Rosenstein will leave the Department of Justice within the next few weeks:
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to leave the Justice Department in mid-March, according to a Justice Department official who spoke to CNN Monday.
The No. 2 official at the department has become one of the highest profile figures in the Trump administration given his oversight of the Russia investigation and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller in 2017.
CNN had previously reported that Rosenstein was planning to step down after Bill Barr was confirmed as attorney general, but the precise timing was fluid. A departure next month could potentially serve as another signal that Mueller’s work is coming to a close.
That’s the $64,000 question, which is much more interesting than Rosenstein’s departure on its own. Rosenstein played an outsized role in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, first writing a memo that justified the firing of FBI director James Comey and then appointing a special prosecutor to continue the FBI’s probes into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rarely has a deputy AG had such a high public profile. His previous boss, Jeff Sessions, had trouble breaking through Rosenstein’s publicity at times, and was usually only assisted in that by personal attacks coming from Trump.
Perhaps a better take on this is that Rosenstein’s status changed significantly enough with the appointment of Barr that his departure likely says nothing about Mueller’s status. Despite the mostly partisan vote on his confirmation, Barr is a solid, institutional-leaning figure who is far more invested in the DoJ than in Trump. Some Senate Democrats might publicly gnash their teeth over Barr’s ascension to control of the Mueller probe, but in truth Barr is the best they would get in this situation and far better than what they might have expected from Trump. That makes Rosenstein’s departure almost a non-event in terms of calculating the end of Mueller’s probe.
In fact, Byron York writes today, one can find plenty of talk that Mueller’s wrapping things up. And plenty of talk that he’s still going strong with no end point yet in sight, too:
There are two diametrically opposed lines of thinking about Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The first is that he is winding down his probe and is unlikely to allege that the Trump campaign and Russia conspired to fix the 2016 presidential election. The second is that he is still going strong, with the biggest charges, perhaps including the fabled collusion allegation, yet to come.
Which is correct? No one outside the Mueller office knows. There are data points, or at least tea leaves, pointing in all directions. But whatever the reality is, there is at this moment a sense that something is imminent from Mueller, and that sense is shaping Trump-Russia politics. …
All Congress really knows about Mueller is the cases he has brought — the charges of lying to the FBI or to Congress, the charges, in the case of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, of tax evasion and other financial crimes, and the charges against Russians. There are also the cases he has not brought. He hasn’t alleged collusion. He hasn’t outlined any scheme between Trump and Russia, even though he has thoroughly investigated some of the figures — Manafort, Gates, Michael Flynn — most likely to have been part of such a scheme, had it existed.
So Mueller remains a black hole. Maybe he really is finishing up his investigation. Maybe he’s not. House Democrats, on the other hand, are totally transparent. They’re going after Trump full-tilt from now on, regardless of what Mueller does.
The real takeaway from Rosenstein’s departure is that he no longer matters in the calculation.
That’s not to say that Rosenstein won’t matter at all. One can imagine that Rosenstein has quite a story to tell in public, and has all the more incentive to do so after Andrew McCabe’s latest allegations. Rosenstein might have a few more things to say about all of his bosses, his colleagues, and the Mueller probe after his March departure. Having left on his own terms, Rosenstein will have more credibility than some (especially McCabe), and he will have a vast market in which to tell his story.